Reading into The Institutional Critique, Then and Now

Art History

December 8, 2019

By the late 1960s, it was clear that the art world is rapidly changing, due to an inevitable intersection with social and political shifts happening on a global scale. The phenomenon aimed to penetrate the very core of the art system and problematize different aspects of the same such as the modes of hierarchy, gender, race, as well as the art market, was Conceptual art. Although mostly focused on the notion of the artwork, language, and semiotics, it nurtured a particular group of artists and critical thinkers who were interested specifically in the institutional critique.

Over time, this particular tendency became a sort of a movement, spreading through the 1980s, 90s, and 00s. To be more precise, the term "Institutional Critique" refers to different artistic and scholarly approaches that critically dissected the workings of institutions such as museums and galleries. It is also used to pose important questions, systematically analyze and unravel different mechanisms of exclusion, misinterpretation and lack of mediation, etc.

It is important to speak about the Institutional Critique since it is quite relevant today, when various institutions become easily commodified or ideologically instrumentalized by the neoliberal and/or right-wing discourse. The institution bears a huge responsibility due to its power to affect and educate the public, so any sort of critique is valuable for the ongoing debate regarding the institution’s purpose in the contemporary moment.

Daniel Buren - Affichages Sauvages
Daniel Buren - Affichages Sauvages, 1968-69. Image creative commons.

The Initial Impulses of Institutional Critique

The practices of artists affiliated with this phenomenon are rooted, as mentioned, in Conceptual art, Minimalism, formalist art criticism and art history, the critical interpretations of authorship proposed by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in the late 1960s, and appropriation art in the 1970s as well. The works differ in media, but it can be said that they are mostly presented as site-specifics, whether installed within a certain structure, in urban space or the landscape.

The development of Institutional Critique coincided with the development of post-structuralist philosophy, literary theory, feminism, gender studies, and post-colonial theory. The notable art historian and the professor of Modern Art History in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego, John C. Welchman wrote of the movement:

Art historians have identified two main waves or generations of institutional critique as they developed in Western Europe and the US, the first dating to the 1960s and 1970s with a focus on the institution of the museum and gallery, and the second associated with the later 1980s and onwards in which the institution being critiqued came to include a range of others beyond museums, from the political to the financial, and the 'institution' of the artist as situated with the museum or gallery.

To underline the historical continuity, similarly like the Conceptualists, the artists practicing Institutional Critique were very much influenced by Marcel Duchamp's readymades that they perceived as a pioneering critical act dissolving the institutionalized representational paradigm.

By embracing all the mentioned aspects, Institutional Critique embraced both the articulation of concept and the notion of the readymade to question art institutions and their relationships to the financial, political, and social power.

Hans Haacke - Condensation Cube
Hans Haacke - Condensation Cube, 1963, fabricated in 2008. The Hirshhorn Museum Washington (DC). Image via Flickr.

The Waves and The Leading Proponents

The pioneers of this important movement were active in both Europe and The States, among them Marcel Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, and Daniel Buren, although all of them declined to be part of the movement. The second generation included Andrea Fraser, Fred Wilson, Louise Lawler, John Knight, Carey Young, Renée Green, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and Barbara Bloom, who were more comfortable with their work being labeled Institutional Critique.

The work of German-born artist Hans Haacke was essential for the development of Institutional Critique in the United States. His 1965 manifesto proposing art as a nonstable, indeterminate field of human activity was important for the movement, as well as some of his early works such as Condensation Cube (1963). In 1967, the artist started teaching at Cooper Union in New York, and he became more interested in the art world and the critique of its social and political systems which culminated with his participation with a 1969 protest movement called the Art Workers' Coalition, which included Lucy Lippard, Robert Morris, and other artists. Under their text 13 Demands, they called for the equal representation of women and black artists in art institutions, museum reforms, and the end of the war in Vietnam.

Michael Asher was another pioneer of Institutional Critique with projects that he called "dislocations"'; the Belgian Marcel Broodthaers was the spokesman for an artist group that occupied the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1968, and a creator of an imagined museum; Daniel Buren in France was known for his stripe works aimed to challenge the observer’s perception of traditional art and Affichages Sauvages (1968-69), or "wild posters" in illegal public spaces in Paris, as reaction to the Student protests.

Many of the mentioned artists of the second wave of Institutional Critique in the 1980s were quite influenced by Haacke and Asher. Andrea Fraser was a leading critic and theorist within the movement with her performances that explored the very nature of critique of corporate and legal systems, a similar exploration present in the works of Carey Young. Fred Wilson and Amalia Mesa-Bain, on the other hand, used to remodel museum collections to create new interpretations, a system of meanings that were not imposed by the institution itself.

The art world during the 1980s largely changed due to the consolidation of the art market and the fact institutions started including Institutional Critique into their exhibitions. The artists used the given opportunity to critically articulate other institutions such as corporations and their colonialist discourse.

Guerilla Girls - The advantages of being a woman artist
Guerilla Girls - The advantages of being a woman artist, 1988. Image via Flickr.

The Significance of Institutional Critique

The generation of artists to follow, including Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and Pierre Huyghe, was influenced by Daniel Buren and Roland Barthes, as well as the participatory sculptures of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Their practices were described as Relational Aesthetics by critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who perceived institutional exhibition spaces as sites of social interaction and the spontaneous production of artworks characterized by their temporality. In recent years, artists such as Tino Sehgal, Tameka Norris, Maurizio Cattelan, and others critically explore the role of the art museum as a public and private institution.

The Institutional Critique was critiqued for not being more open to the audience; it requires a sort of special knowledge to comprehend, so it seems narcissistic and open only for the artists, critics, theorists, and art historians, making it elitist and autistic. For instance, in her 2005 Artforum text Andrea Fraser states:

Today, the argument goes, there no longer is an outside. How, then, can we imagine, much less accomplish, a critique of art institutions when museum and market have grown into an all-encompassing apparatus of cultural reification? Now, when we need it most, institutional critique is dead, a victim of its success or failure, swallowed up by the institution it stood against.

Nevertheless, the work of almost any artist that defies the imposed rules of gallery programming, grand biennials or art market might be described as a form of Institutional Critique. It simply depends on the context of the given production and the ways the artists position themselves in regards to society and politics.

Editors’ Tip: Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique

The essays collected in this volume explore this legacy and develop the models of institutional critique in ways that go well beyond the field of art. Interrogating the shifting relations between ‘institutions’ and ‘critique’, the contributors to this volume analyze the past and present of institutional critique and propose lines of future development. Engaging with the work of philosophers and political theorists such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno and others, these essays reflect on the mutual enrichments between critical art practices and social movements and elaborate the conditions for politicized critical practice in the twenty-first century.

Featured image: Hans Haacke - Gift Horse, Trafalgar Square, London. Image creative commons.

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